Sustainable Tourism - Why it matters

Wildebeest in the Mara

When I decided to undertake my undergraduate degree a Bachelor of Science in Ecotourism and Hospitality Management at Kisii University here in Kenya many of my family members and friends had no idea what it was or what it entailed. Many of them thought it had something to do with hospitals ignoring the ecotourism part and went straight to the hospitality word of the course. When I explained to them what it really entailed and broke their visions of me in hospital scrubs and a stethoscope, they looked at me confused and worried. “Wanjiku, what is this you are going to do for four years? Be a tour guide and show foreigners around?” They just couldn’t believe as most African parents did that I wasn’t going to do a medicine, engineering or law degree like the rest. I began to doubt myself, the tourism and hospitality industry in Kenya no doubt was one that had its highs and lows but mainly lows in the past few years. Due to the security issues that had faced Kenya from terrorist attacks to post election violence, the tourism industry one of the major foreign exchange earners was barely trying to pull itself in to recovery. Starting a travel company let alone looking for a job in one was going to be a frightful nightmare.

Inspite of all the dizzying questions swirling in my mind; I had no option and had to undertake the course for the next four years. Now when I think back I’m grateful that I took the jump and did it because I had a passion for the tourism/travel industry and what I learnt was invaluable. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how I my mind expanded within that short span of time but most important of all I learnt of how travel inevitably directly impacts our environment both negatively and positively. So here I am now four years later, still struggling with finding a good job in the industry, wondering what do with my life and above all how I can travel and let people know how they can travel sustainably or ethically.

From the tens of definitions of I have read about sustainable travel including ethical travel/ ecotourism/ responsible travel/ green travel, it all boils down to one main purpose which is finding a way that tourism can be maintained long-term without harming natural and cultural environments. This includes valuing the environment and looking after our natural resources. Travelers need to be aware of how tourism affects local people, businesses and native cultures they also need to be more aware of pollution levels caused by travel and how that affects the environment and local wildlife. Sustainable travel should minimize the negative impacts of tourism and ideally be beneficial to the area in which it takes place. According to the (UN) World Tourism Organisation:  it is the “management of all resources in such a way that economic, social, and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity, and life support systems.”

2017 was designated the year of International Sustainable Tourism for Development. With the ever increasing numbers of travelers every year, I wonder how many of them identify as sustainable travelers or even if they were interested in travelling sustainably how would they go about it? Luckily, a quick google search would bring you to many articles written on the subject and how one can travel differently having in mind all the knowledge acquired from the internet. Three fabulous examples of bloggers who write about sustainable travel are Charlie on Travel, Ellie Cleary of Soul Travel Blog and Naomi of Roaming the Americas (Go have a look at their blogs). If you’re not yet convinced take a look at these Lonely Planet and New York Times articles then you would understand why everyone is getting on the travelling sustainably bus. From eating local foods, going by foot or bike, staying at different local eco-conscious accommodations and being conscious on your carbon footprint there are number of ways you can travel sustainably minimizing your carbon footprint anywhere you go.  

As a Kenyan and having been blessed to see the eighth wonder of the world the famous wildebeest migration at the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, I must admit it was one of those moments in life where I came to really appreciate the beauty of nature. Unfortunately, my mind was bothered by the many four wheel vehicles in the reserve, hundred of tourists perched on the open roof tops of the cars with their high resolution cameras clicking away. If I was to put myself in their shoes, I would assume they would be going back home after their nice vacation to the Mara going to show off photos of wildlife to their friends and family. Problem is, did Sam and Amanda think about how much emission of their Land Rover would impact the Mara? Did they think about how their tourist dollars are not trickling to the community when they decided to stay in the swanky luxury hotel owned by some foreign investors in the reserve? Or the effect to the environment of how they wantonly threw plastic wraps of biscuits which they had eaten while on their early morning game drive? Chances are, they went back home feeling well rested after their long vacation, looking forward to when they would go back to the Mara the following year. Truth is, the never ending cycle of their repetitive travels to the Mara is contributing to the death of one of the most precious ecosystems in Kenya and especially for the local Maasai community who live in the reserve. This is just an example of how many travelers are travelling unsustainably and not being conscious of the environment they are in hence leading to fast deterioration of the Maasai Mara ecosystem. This has been evidenced by the rapid loss of biodiversity of flora and fauna, longer periods of drought and floods and certain pollution of the Mara Game Reserve.

Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t visit the Maasai Mara National Reserve, by God if you don’t you’ll be missing out on one of the greatest events to ever exist on this earth. If only we were to be able to do something, not only for Maasai Mara National Reserve but for every tourist site in the world which experiences a definite overflow of tourists leading to mass tourism to these sites every year. They may certainly be seen as helpful as more tourists would mean more dollars flowing in which is good for the people and for the tourism industry in general. But at what cost? One day when everything dies out and nothing is left to see and photograph that is when we will start wishing we had done something earlier about it. How can we preserve our ecosystems for generations to come? I guess you can do a whole lot of something now that you’ve been given this Yoda-like advice from a wise sage (I kid). I hope now you can be the nomad who is a sustainable warrior and share this with the rest of the human race.